12 January 2007

More thoughts on spiritual warfare

After reading some of the synchronised blogs relating to spiritual warfare I have a few more thoughts on the topic.

There are two points in particular that I want to comment on. One is the desire, expressed by some, to find a different term to replace spiritual warfare.

Related to this is the linking of spiritual warfare to the idea that non-Christian religions are "demonic", and thus the notion that spiritual warfare is warfare against the adherents of other religions.

My view is that the second of these is a dangerous distortion of the Christian understanding of spiritual warfare, but that it will not be corrected by simply substituting one term for another. A rose by any other name will swell as sweet, and a sewer by any other name will smell as foul. The solution is not to change the name, but to correct the misunderstanding.

Some Biblical references

One problem with the idea of finding another term for "spiritual warfare" is that the concept is embedded in the Scriptures and the Christian worldview, and any term we may devise will probably be inadequate, and may give rise to more serious distortions than those it seeks to prevent. Here are just a few of the scriptural references to the concept of spiritual warfare.

  • II Cor 10:3-5 - Though in the flesh we do not struggle according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly, but powerful to God for destroying strongholds, demolishing arguments and every high thing that rises against the knowledge of God.
  • I Peter 2:11 - Brethren, I beseech you as sojurners and aliens to abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.
  • II Tim 2:3-5 - Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.

Christians and pagans

The last scripture reference ((II Tim 2:3-5) also relates to Christians and pagans. As the historian Robin Lane Fox has pointed out:
In antiquity, pagans already owed a debt to Christians. Christians first gave them their name, pagani... In everyday use, it meant either a civilian or a rustic. Since the sixteenth century the origin of the early Christians' usage has been disputed, but of the two meanings, the former is the likelier. Pagani were civilians who had not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan. By its word for non-believers, Christian slang bore witness to the heavenly battle which coloured Christians' view of life (Fox 1987:30).

This heavenly battle, between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan, is one in which there is no peace and no neutrality (see Luke 11:14-26, esp v. 23, "He who is not for us is against us"). If there is no neutrality, then the pagani, those who have not enlisted as soldiers of Christ, must be soldiers in the army of Satan, whether they know it or not That seems to be a logical conclusion, and yet Christians have adopted different views, and ambivalent views, towards non-Christian religions. The stark opposition in Luke 11 is countered by the different view in Mark 9:38-41, "He that is not against us is for us".

At this point I cannot speak for Western theology, because since Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury and Calvin of Geneva the West has tended to have a different understanding of sin, and notably of original sin. Western theology has tended to see original sin as a macula, a stain on the soul, transmitted from generation to generation, original guilt being transmitted along with original sin.

The Orthodox understanding is somewhat different. I was born in South Africa, and so I am a South African citizen by birth. But there is no mark on my soul to say that I am a South African citizen. Similarly, South Africa is part of the world and the world lies in the power of the Evil One, and so I was also a citizen of the Kingdom of Satan by birth, but in baptism I renounced my citizenship of that Kingdom and was born again as a citizen by birth of the Kingdom of God (Heb 12:22-24). Thus Western theology has tended to see original sin as a matter of heredity, while Orthodox theology has tended to see it as a matter of the environment. Western theology has tended to see sin and evil primarily as something God punishes us for; Orthodox theology has tended to see sin and evil primarily as something God rescues us from.

Having made this qualification about sin in general, and original sin in particular one can see that at the Fall, man lost the likeness of God, but not the image of God. Orthodox theology does not accept the Calvinist theory of total depravity. Human beings, and human society, and human religion became corrupt, but did not become wholly, purely and totally evil.

So Christians (or at least Orthodox Christians) approach pagans from a double point of view. If there is a polytheistic society (and Christianity grew up in a polytheistic society, and most of the religions it encountered inside and outside the Roman empire for the first few centuries were polytheistic) then Christians believe that they do not worship God the creator, but lesser deities, created deities. Most of the pagan creation myths speak of the gods being created. A common word for lesser deities in the time of early Christians was daemones. Daemones inhabited the atmosphere, between earth and heaven. Their primary characteristic was not (at that stage) to be evil, but simply to be lesser gods. We can see this in Psalm 82 (LXX 81). And this is the picture given in the New Testament. Pagans worship creatures rather than the creator. They worship underlings rather than the great God above all gods. Nations have gods, national spirits, as described in Deuteronomy 32:8-9, and can be seen in the Orthodox ikon of Babel when contrasted with the ikon of Pentecost.

So in the New Testament the gods of the pagans are described as demons and idols, not so much to indicate that they are purely evil, but to indicate that they are lesser. "I say, 'You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless you shall die like men, and fall like any prince.' Arise O God, judge the earth; for to Thee belong all the nations" (Psalm 82:6-8)

That last verse, "Arise, O God, judge the earth" is sung, accompanied by noisy banging and stamping of feet, by Orthodox Christians on Holy Saturday, and it is a prayer fulfilled by Jesus when he said "Now is the judgement of this world (judge the earth), now shall the ruler of this world be cast out (like any prince), and I, when I am lifted up from the earth (Arise, O God) will draw all men to myself (for to Thee belong all the nations)" (John 12:31)-32).

Later in Christian history the distinction between angels and demons hardened. Angels were good spirits, demons were fallen angels, and strictly evil, to be resisted in spiritual warfare, and yet there is also a sense in which Christians mourn for them and their loss, and even the Archangel Michael did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgment against the devil (Jude 6-10).

So the deities of the pagans are daemones, in the sense of being lesser spirits, creatures rather than the creator, and their cult is, like all human worship, fallen. The deities may be angels or demons, (in the good and evil sense) as well. Human religion is corrupt, but it is not completely corrupt, and in Christian mission is not necessarily to be eradicated, but restored and fulfilled. And even Christian worship, undertaken as it is by sinful men in a fallen world, is likely to become fallen and corrupt itself. So we, as Christians, do not necessarily say to pagans "Your religion is bad and ours is good, therefore abandon your bad religion and join our good one." But we rather say "Come to meet the One who who supersedes all religion, yours and ours, and who calls us to worship in Spirit and in Truth."

Fr Michael Oleksa notes that the teaching of St Maximus the Confessor gave Orthodox Christianity a more positive view of non-Christian religions than Western theology did. "St Maximus the Confessor wrote that the Logos became embodied not just once, but three times - in the creation of the world, in the Holy Scriptures, and finally and most perfectly as a human being" (Oleksa 1992:38).
It was St Maximus's opposition to the monothelitism of his times, and to the Platonic theology of Origen, that laid the foundations for the positive view which Orthodox missions have generally had of traditional societies in central and eastern Europe in the 9th & 10th centuries, and across central Asia and into eastern Siberia and Alaska over the next 800 years. "Orthodox evangelists felt no obligation to attack all the pre-contact religious beliefs of shamanistic tribes, for they could perceive in them some of the positive appreciation of the cosmos that is central to St Maximus' theology. They could affirm that the spiritual realities these societies worshipped were indeed 'logoi' related to the Divine Logos, whose personal existence these societies had simply never imagined" (Oleksa 1992:61).

So when a pagan diviner (in South Africa called a "sangoma") casts out a demon, should we, like those who accused Jesus, say that he casts out demons by the prince of demons, and denounce it as a satanic deception? If we do, we are seduced into making of accusations, and that is the most satanic deception of all.

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